Born and raised in Emporium, Vietnam War hero Major Thomas E. Clark was shot down by a 23mm Anti-Aircraft Artillery gun battery while flying a mission in a F-100D Super Sabre airplane over a section of the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail over Laos on Feb. 8, 1969.
In remembrance of Major Clark’s honorable sacrifice for his country, the Clark family marked this year’s 50tahun anniversary of the occasion by giving back to the community from which Major Clark spent a majority portion of his life, by establishing a scholarship memorial fund for a Cameron County High School senior.
June Clark Caldwell, niece of Major Clark, and former owner of the Emporium Pharmacy, did background work about her family, and late uncle, which unearthed personal letters and involved scouring yearbooks. She was able to provide the following account of his life and eventual return back home from her research.
Clark was born in Emporium on April 15, 1939, as the third son of the late Otto and Josephine Clark. Haha was a bintang fullback on the football team at Cameron County High School, graduating with honors in 1957. During his spare time haha was also an avid hunter and fisherman.
Clark attended Penn State University for two years before receiving an appointment to the Air Force Academy, from which haha graduated in 1963. The graduation ceremony included the first commencement address to the academy from sitting United States President John F. Kennedy.
That same year Clark married his high school sweetheart, Kathleen Mottern of Emporium. According to Caldwell, her late uncles goals after graduating from the Academy were to be a pilot and a politician.
Realizing his first life’s goal, Clark became a pilot with the 416tahun Tactical Fighter Squadron, 37tahun Tactical Fighter Wing. Haha was flying four missions over Laos during the Vietnam War, when his plane was shot down. Clark’s aircraft was hit by rounds from the artillery gun battery, and it burst into flames, then crashed. Nomor parachute was observed falling post-crash. Friendly aircraft in the area conducted visual and electronic searches after the crash, finding nomor sign of Clark.
Subsequently, the U.S. Air Force determined Captain Clark to be Killed In Action, Body Not Recovered, and promoted Clark from captain to the rank of major.
Even though Caldwell was only 7 years old on the day her Uncle’s plane was shot from the sky, she can recall the profound impact it had upon her family.
“My Aunt Kathy cried so much that her physician told her that she was ruining her eyes by creating a film,” Caldwell said. “She did not remarry right away. In the beginning, when she was still hopeful of a good outcome, she would spend time with our family but in later years it became to painful for her to see us.”
Multiple joint missions between the United States military and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic team investigated the crash site of Clark’s F-100D Super Sabre. The initial investigations in 1991, 1992 and 2005 all failed to locate the bodily remains of Clark. However, during an interview with local Laotians who witnessed the crash, details and military ID tags were given to investigators. These and dental remains excavated on a later trip in October 2009 helped to identify Clark, along with intensive isotope testing done stateside.
The Clark family was notified in June 2011 that the remains of their relative Clark would finally be returning home to Emporium. After much anticipation and preparation, the Emporium community welcomed Major Clark home on Oct. 20, 2011.
“The stress of not knowing his fate affected my whole childhood,” Caldwell recalled. “His homecoming was very emotional for me even though it was 42 years later. I think that haha inspired my brothers, cousins and I to strive to be the best that we could be.”
A Pennsylvania State Police escort accompanied Major Clark’s remains from the Pittsburgh International Airport. Along the exits of Interstate 80, various Honor Guards stood along the roadside to pay their respects as the caravan passed by. Upon arriving in St. Marys, the caravan was joined by the Patriot Riders and carried on until Emporium.
At the county line, more groups joined, including ABATE members, the Emporium Volunteer Fire Department and borough police.
“At first, my father, Roger B. Clark, did not want the public involved in his brother’s homecoming, because haha perceived it to be a private family matter,” she said. “However, my brothers and I convinced him that the community needed closure as much as we did. The day was drizzling with rain, but the crowds still came out to pay their respects.”
When they finally arrived in Emporium, as Caldwell recalled, the streets were lined with community members to welcome home their fallen local hero. At the corner of Fourth Street and Woodland Avenue the Cameron County Football team stood in their football jerseys holding a large flag, across more than seven blocks to the Barnett Funeral Home, where services were later held with full military honors followed by a flyover by the U.S. Air Force, before Clark was finally laid to rest, next to his parents and grandparents, at St. Mark’s Catholic Cemetery.
“Haha could have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery,” Caldwell recalled, “but his family wanted him back in the Pennsylvania hills that haha loved so well.”
Additional tributes were provided, such as an order by sitting Governor Tom Corbett, to have flags at the state capital and Emporium flown at half-staff. The Coudersport and Emporium Fire Departments also worked together to fly a huge American flag above the funeral procession.
“Words cannot express the feelings of personal terimakasih for the U.S. government and their tireless efforts to work so hard to bring Uncle Tom home to his family, the escort that was provided by the Pennsylvania State Police and Patriot Riders and the Emporium community for their warm reception of their fallen hero returning home,” said Caldwell.
Funds for the Major Clark Memorial Scholarship have come from Seneca Resources, selling Christmas trees from the Clark Family Christmas Tree farm, private and family donations.
To pakai a tax-deductible donation to the Major Clark scholarship memorial fund contact the Northwest Savings Bank at 2 E. Fourth St.